In 1930s Japanese occupied Korea, young Sookee is hired as a handmaiden to Japanese heiress, Hideko. Hideko lives cut off from the world, secluded in a large countryside estate, made of a Japanese style wing and a western style wing under her uncle’s control.
But Sookee was hired by a Korean swindler posing as a Japanese Count, to help him seduce the lady to marry him, rob her fortune and send her to a madhouse. The plan would have unfolded according to the plan if Sookee and Hideko didn’t discover unexpected emotions for one another.
A period drama, two cultures and an erotic romance, The Handmaiden seems like the basis for a captivating set and this is exactly what director, Chan-wook Park, and production designer, Seong-hie Ryu, accomplished. Every scene in The Handmaiden is a showpiece of stunning production design: ravishing décors, detailed settings and luxuriant costumes.
The film is based on Sarah Waters‘ best seller novel, Fingersmith, set in 19th century London. When asked why he chose to relocate the story from Victorian England to colonial era of the 1930s in Japanese occupied Korea, Park admitted that he wanted that, just as in the novel, the story be set in a time where there was still the idea of “difference” and the idea of a modern mental institute.
In Korean history, the 1930s colonial time was the only period in which the class system was still very much part of society.
The theme of “difference” is central to the story. Nothing would ordinarily bring the two main characters together. In fact everything separate them; social class, culture, age and personality. One appears absent and naive while the other is burst of youthful energy. Park admitted, that having one character Japanese and the other Korean, added a layer of difference because they come from two different cultures.
“Not even in Japan can you find a home that combines Western and Japanese styles”.
The house is an important space in film and could easily be considered as a character on its own. It first reflects Kouzuki’s admiration for Japan and England. It is also an accessory to further widen the space between Hideko and Sookee. Hideko lives on the western wing and therefore lives and sleeps as a western lady while Sookee lives in the Japanese wing and sleeps in a “oshiire”, a linen closet.
According to Park, the most important room of the house is the library. Its exterior has a traditional Japanese architecture while the interior has more of a western style. The inside also includes a Japanese garden with tatami mats. Japanese gardens are meant to reproduce the outside world in miniature and represents Kouzuki’s will to create a new world inside his own kingdom.
From Japanese traditional costume to romantic English attire, through shoji screens to gothic corridors, a dazzling setting for the many many twisted subplots of The Handmaiden.
The Handmaiden premiered at the Cannes Festival last May and will be released in the UK on April 17. It stars Min-Hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim and Jung-Woo Ha. It is now playing as part of the BFI Flare Film Festival in London.